Ryan McNamara

in conversation with Hannah Black

Ryan McNamara: So how do we start? Is it interesting to hear how depressed an artist is?

Hannah Black: I don’t know… it’s confusing. How much of working as an artist is about someone’s investment in the concept of the artist as a person, and how much is actually about the work? I guess there is a spectrum: on the one end you have the genius painter who might have an interesting backstory but their art is more about mastery, and on the other you have someone who’s entire thing is just persona.

RM: Yeah, like a lifestyle brand. I had this realization recently that Marfa was Donald Judd’s Goop.

HB: Culture arrives at white celebrity to die, like elephants instinctively navigate toward the place they want to leave their bones. Meanwhile, while we’re living, the spectrum of art can run from the kind of meticulous craft that pretends modernity never happened, to work that painfully knows itself to have been imbued with value by the art circulation system.

RM: I’m almost annoyed that I’m going to bring up the most obvious example, but Warhol…

HB: We can replace all the obvious references with really esoteric references after.

RM: Right, I want it to all be artists that the reader will have to look up.

HB: Andy Whore-hole? Is that a drag name? Very obscure.

RM: I came up with two really good drag names recently. One is for a riot grrrl academic and her name is Heidi Grrr. The other is for a queen who isn’t virtuosic but who surrounds herself with really good backup singers and dancers. Her name is Julie Yard. That one is sorta me.

HB: Because that’s how you feel, that you surround yourself with more talented people?

RM: Well, I’m not in my own performances anymore because I can’t actually perform the tasks they would ask of me.

HB: Do you want them to be too hard for you?

RM: I’m not sure. They just kept progressing. My body literally can’t do them. This isn’t some reflection on my self-esteem. I did have a moment when I was trying to locate my virtuosity, and Claire Bishop told me that I was skilled at intervention.

HB: I think it’s more of a personality thing. The extent to which you have the type of personality that can believe your work is important.

RM: People really want that. They are looking for you to say, “This is really fucking worth it.” But I have to build myself up to even say I’m proud of it. Or at least there’s a caveat to my pride.

HB: Why is that?

RM: I don’t know if certitude is a morally correct position. It’s odd that the type of personality drawn to being an artist is often in opposition to what you have to end up doing as an artist. Why would someone with vast self-doubt enter into a situation in which she has to stand in the middle of the room and welcome visitors with the unspoken proclamation, “I have filled this room with my thoughts and ideas. Please come in and engage with me”? That’s a baller move.

HB: Yeah.

RM: And all the artists I’m interested in hate that.

HB: But I feel like your work is somewhat about this. The work is about how impossible it is to work as an artist, or at least to be put in that position. I think I have a very similar pathology. How did you start doing art?

RM: More than anything, art was where I thought I could find weird people. I had no real-life examples around me, so it was more just the mythical figure of the artist. The potential of those encounters excited me more than a love of oil paint or ceramics or Dada. I had this idea that everyone in the art world would be enlightened, like… Europeans. Remember, this was Phoenix, Arizona in the 1990s.

HB: There’s both “push” and “pull” factors, to quote a business-studies textbook, because that’s also about feeling alienated. Maybe it’s easier to express it as a positive thing where you say that you were looking for a world of exciting weirdos but maybe it was also feeling like you are an unexciting weirdo. Or you are a weirdo that the people surrounding you are bored by. Were you interested in aesthetics at a young age?

RM: I mean, I was gay.

HB: Maybe that’s your virtuosity. You are really good at being gay.

RM: No! I’m not. I’m completely oblivious to the world of cruising that my homo friends tell me about. Well, I’m not oblivious so much as scared of it. Like when I see an attractive person and they return my gaze I immediately avert my eyes. That’s not great cruising technique.

HB: Same! As soon as I want something I assume I can’t have it. It’s a way to sustain the wildness and beauty of desire, in my opinion. I’m interested in this trope where you have the recursive selfie monsters (I.L.L.I.S. & I.S.L.I.F., 2018) and then you have the costumes with the dancers’ faces on them (Battleground, 2016) and then you once were commissioned by a collector in Hong Kong to make a piece and you covered the performers’ costumes in images of the collector (Score, 2014)... I’m interested in what this recursive self-image means to you.

RM: It has something to do with an amazement at humanity. I definitely don’t mean that in an uplifting way. At best it’s in a sublime way. It’s about being stupefied by the fact that each person has a face and a life and problems and fears. That’s so many faces and lives and problems and fears. Faces are especially insane because they are a symbol for this mess of energy that each person is, like a logo for your life force. I can’t really get over the fact that humans are individuals that I can recognize as individuals. It’s really basic.

HB: And as you have told me before, you don’t know what you look like.

RM: Yeah, I have no idea. My face and body are a blur in my head. But I know what they—the performers, the audience—look like. The costumes you mention that had the performers’ faces printed large-scale on them was from my Guggenheim piece Battleground. There was the practical fact that I want the audience to really see the performers’ faces. I’m more interested in performers than technique. Of course I love dance virtuosity and love being in awe of the way that this group of people can move, but a dancer’s technique is always in service to the story I’m making up in my head about them. I had an entire mythology made up about the members of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company before I’d met any of them. And so the face and the information it transmits is perhaps more important to me than to other choreographers.

HB: How did the person who commissioned the performance react to the costumes printed with images of her face?

RM: She was mortified. At first, I was a little surprised by her reaction because I saw it as a very site- or situation-specific gesture. I came to performance because of its specificity. I liked trolling the idea of art being universal and timeless. Performance is not only this space, it’s also this time and these people. In that case, it was also this patron. But I did eventually understand her being unnerved by it.

HB: It’s almost hostile. And you weren’t aware of it as hostile until she reacted to it.

RM: Yeah, I guess it was a little hostile.

HB: I mean if it was intended critically then it would make more sense. But maybe its destructive power was only guaranteed by your conviction that it was just a great idea that everyone would love.

RM: In my mind a commission is a portrait. That’s the history. So maybe the hostility was toward the ridiculousness of the situation, which, don’t get me wrong, I was thrilled to be a part of. I want more of that in my life. But maybe I was just trying to make sense of it for myself.

HB: That is funny because I am thinking of a very formalist sculptor or painter who is constantly re-encountering the fact that there is a surface or that there is some sort of pigment. And if you take Claire Bishop’s point that your mode is intervention, you could also think of the social relations surrounding the production of an artwork as your material. I like the idea that this could be a high formalist inquiry in which you constantly have to re-encounter with shock the ostensibly banal idea that there are other people that you work with and that they see you and you see them. It’s part of your practice, I think, to continually challenge yourself to be surprised by really obvious things.

RM: It’s like, “Did you know that you have a face? And you have a face! And you have a face!”

HB: So can you tell me about the selfie monsters in your most recent show?

RM: I was bewildered that my shows had become sites for people to take photos of themselves. It was like accidental selfie relational aesthetics, which is a relationship to audience that I hadn’t necessarily signed up for. But as I thought about it I realized that these audience members are trying to mark their experience in a way that art has always sought to do. It’s planting a flagpole in time and saying, “I was here and I did this.” It’s very Lascaux. And thinking of it that way made it less… depressing?

HB: So the figures in the show are avatars of people coming in to see the show who only experience it through a self-reflective process, through marking their presence in the space with a selfie? They are standing in for someone ignoring the rest of the work? I love this wild self-neg.

RM: Right, my first response was that this is the expected narrative of today: we are all self-obsessed and can’t get off our phones. Which, of course, is true. But you have all your aunts and uncles who read Malcolm Gladwell talking about that, you don’t need me to tell you. So I was interested in what else that could be. Is it really as simple as this audience member not being able to see the value in anything that doesn’t involve himself? I wanted to find an answer that wasn’t so surface. Or that was just surface.

HB: Well, in light of the thing we were talking about earlier where we both instantly look away when we see someone attractive—and now I can’t stop thinking about what that means!—the figures ignoring the work, or at least having a self-involved relationship to the work, that seems to be one of the ways in which you deal with desire. It seems that you are attached to the idea that someone is ignoring you. The attractive person is ignoring you, someone coming to see your work is ignoring you. Or it’s only about them. Rather than a refusal of desire, this seems so consistent for you that it must be just the modality of how you experience desire!

RM: But then the strange thing is that they do come. The selfies the monsters are showing off are all from places where I’ve done projects. They follow me. So at least they showed up.

HB: Do you think the monsters are self-absorbed?

RM: I don’t think it’s that simple. If someone showed up to a party and had a giant picture of their face printed on their shirt and was holding a life-size cutout of themselves, I don’t know if I would just feel that they were self-involved. Self-awareness informs their self-involvement. The little creatures have an ease displaying their visage that makes me jealous. They have no issues with exhibiting the sack of flesh that allows them to interface with the world.

HB: You feel like you can’t do that?

RM: I feel like I can take some tips from them, yeah.

HB: Because on one reading, you do do that, even sometimes literally, you’re just saying, “Here I am!” Like in your piece And Introducing Ryan McNamara (2010), which was basically an invitation to come and meet you. And that’s the work. But when you are doing that, actually doing that, you’re also kind of ironizing, deflecting yourself somehow. You’re making an elaborate pantomime of your ordinary human desire to be seen and known.

RM: Yeah, I mean I didn’t come to this through being a dancer or actor or anything, so performance isn’t innate to me. So then what does draw me to these situations? I feel like I need a very specific, predefined stage to feel comfortable taking up space. It gives me an opportunity to convince you that I’m worth it. There is a Joan Didion quote that I might not completely agree with, but which haunts me anyway. She says that her mom told her to enter every social situation knowing that you are the least interesting person there. It fits really well with my Catholic upbringing—being uninteresting is my original sin. But I do know that I have a rich, deep, witty, inner life—it’s just that my transmission of that via my work or words can let me down. I’m having that feeling right now with this interview. Can’t I just download my thoughts into your brain? I promise they are more interesting. I have a tendency in large groups to not want to take up space, but then here I am filling a room or a theater with myself. It’s because I’ve been given permission, but I’ve realized that the person actually giving me permission is myself.

HB: There’s something very paradoxical about what you are saying because there are artists who create work that is very far away from who they are. There are artists who work very explicitly with research, or form, or a tradition. But you keep your work very close to your being; your reaction to having a room to fill immediately opens out onto this struggle with the ego. You proceed deeper into the problem rather than steering away from it and making something more detached.

RM: Well, I just have a slight anxiety at all times around how to interact with people and how to let them know who I am. Partly because I don’t have a full sense of who I am. It’s very much like how I don’t know what I look like. I also don’t know what I seem like. When someone says, “Oh, I saw this thing that reminded me so much of you,” my first thought is, “Really? I’m an entity capable of reminding others of other things?”

HB: I don’t know if it’s about comfort or discomfort. It seems like there’s this really charged question, for you, of what it means to be a person—you’re somehow dwelling in a question of how anyone is anyone at all. It’s a literally hysterical mode, I think, in the psychoanalytic sense, but I probably just think that because I’m a hysteric too. Your work could be read as totally about yourself because it’s an intensely self-referential body of work. But the purpose, for you, I think, of making work about yourself, is to show how that’s impossible. I can’t be self-referential because what would I be referencing? When you make a show that rests on the apparent simplicity of just “meet Ryan!”, in fact it opens up onto the more profound question of, who the fuck is Ryan? It’s as if it’s only through the potentially (or hopefully?) objectifying gaze of the other that it’s possible to experience yourself as a subject at all.

RM: There was a while when I named all my shows Ryan McNamara Presents…, which was about labeling me as something that exists and is capable of presenting, like I’m a corporation. Because obviously corporations are more real than me. It reads like satire, but maybe I do need to declare my existence.

HB: Do you have any idea of why that is? What do you know about being a baby?

RM: I’m not sure. What do you know about being a baby?

HB: Unfortunately there is a lot of pressure on mothers and that’s why they are all basically impossible, and babies absorb all the longing and rage of the mother, thus continuing the cycle of the impossibility of being a person—I agree with what I see as the message of your work, that it’s impossible to be a person. But here we are anyway. What does it look like for you to be making a performance or an exhibition? Do you have a practice?

RM: At this point it’s mostly making stuff on assignment.

HB: I think that’s how most people work, by the way.

RM: Yeah, because once I’m done with the beautiful trauma of making something, I just want to breathe.

HB: Right.

RM: I wish I were excited by opportunity, but any excitement is quickly overridden with panic. I immediately feel like there is no way that I can create an idea for the show. In the same way that you can’t believe that people have sex, I can’t believe that people come up with exhibitions. A performance is an hour of stuff happening? Or an entire room with four walls and a floor to fill with stuff? That makes the idea all the more magical when it finally lands. This moment is pretty inexplicable and I suppose I could almost allow myself to think of it as a spiritual experience, but I can never relish it long enough because I’m just so fucking relieved that I have an idea. “I’ve outwitted them again!”

HB: So do you just wake up one day and say, “Oh I want to do this,” or do you research, do you read?

RM: A tricky thing about our job is figuring out… when we are doing our job. It’s like this game that the writer Sarah Nicole Prickett plays with her sister where they text each other a description of their current scenario and then follow it up with the question, “Depressed or Lazy?” So I guess the game I’m playing is “Artist or Liar?” Because I can justify anything as artistic research. The only definite requirement for being an artist is having genuine curiosity about the world, which I think I do. And so I can go about my day and have that nagging question—“What am I going to make?”—in the back of my head, and then usually something happens. When half of the country was clamoring to declare themselves a Sanctuary City and the other half was condemning that clamor, I realized that I didn’t know what a Sanctuary City is. So I went in deep reading takes. It turns out that no one knows what it is, but during my research I came across this line that Sanctuary Cities use “awareness raising and befriending schemes,” and I loved how kind-yet-sinister that was, so that became the title and genesis of a performance that I had to make. I use the specifics of the situation to really shape the idea. Sometimes it can feel like all the givens are puzzle pieces and all I have to do is put them together in the right way and the idea-image will appear. I like it when it feels like solving a logic problem.

HB: But what does that look like? What is your process?

RM: I think I’ve learned to give myself allowance to meander during these periods rather than just panic. So pull down that book or click on that link or watch Dynasty. I let myself go into deep curiosity holes. I know this term from a 30 Rock episode, but it’s called the “Shower Principle.” One of the main characters Jack… Well, I’m not sure how aware you are of 30 Rock.

HB: I’m aware.

RM: Well, Jack needs to come up with his next big idea and he is trying to do everything that isn’t thinking about that idea. And he realizes that solving Liz’s problems provides him the right amount of distraction to solve his idea problem. Do you have a starting point?

HB: I also work only when commissioned. I think a good thing is that I’ve stopped romanticizing what it might mean to be a person who is always producing work. I often have a panic phase when working on a show, and I feel completely bewildered by the idea that I have to put something in a room and the strangeness of that. But a thing that makes me feel different from a lot of artists is that I don’t like to make anything until I know that I like the idea. When I’m collaborating with my friend who is much more of a maker, she always asks, “How will you know if the idea is good until you’ve tried it?” And I say, “How can I try it if I don’t know the idea is good?” I don’t know what happens in the gap between not knowing what I’m doing and understanding what I have to do, and I’m OK with leaving that to the privacy of the unconscious. Maybe as part of that, I don’t consciously predetermine anything about medium, form, anything. For example I’ll waste days of preparation for a show thinking, “Maybe I should just do a series of drawings,” even though I don’t think I would ever show a series of drawings. I have no desire to make people come and look at my drawings. But it’s as if I have to experience the possibility of that over and over again, as if it’s newly astonishing every time, that I can do whatever I want as long as I agree to call it art. In the first phase of working on a show I feel painfully unable to limit the question of what should be done. Should I burn down the entire gallery? Should I take all the money and give it to armed insurgents somewhere, anywhere? Maybe I should, but I never do. I always end up with like, some videos, or some things, or a combination of videos and things. But I can’t give up the idea that it could all have been completely different. Now I’ve been working as an artist for a few years, I can start to see some things that repeat, and I’m surprised and pleased to see that I do have specific interests after all. You are your own art historian. It’s reassuring in a way: “Oh, I do have a personality.”

RM: Absolutely. It’s amazing how basic it is. We are making physical manifestations of the experience of being us. It’s like I need to be affirmed that I am me, and that is a provable fact because I can look at it in front of me. See! I’m not just a jumble of random thoughts and experiences. I am a continuous being! Maybe other people don’t need this external confirmation, they just wake up with it.

HB: I’m a bit horrified by objects when they’re extracted from the social, so I’m horrified by art on some level. That’s probably why I do it. I’m so afraid of the movie Cast Away that I can’t watch it but I read the script online. What scares me about Cast Away is that he has to make friends with a ball. I hate the idea of being alone and I hate the idea of having to befriend an object. People need people! I resent all substitutions. I refuse to sublimate.

RM: When I did a public talk with Nicole Eisenman about the selfie-creatures, I was a little drunk and speaking really freely. What I landed on—which I regretted saying right away—was that in retrospect part of the impetus for making the creatures was that I was lonely. And then I played it off as a joke, but it was actually a weird vulnerable moment. That was a little too real.

HB: Or wanting to tell people that. Like wanting people to know that you needed the creatures.

RM: Right, it’s just saying to the audience, “Yes, I’m very lonely. I’m not sure if any of you are interested in curing that, but also please don’t, because I will be so freaked out by our conversation.” So basically everything is just a coded cry for help.

HB: We are really similar in this aspect of our work! I think maybe a difference between us is that I have a more consistent attachment to an abstract politics of collectivity, although for you maybe the equivalent is queerness or gay scenes. I suppose for someone like you who came into art after working for nonprofits, your view of politics might be different. In my experience no one is more skeptical of the politics of collectivity than people who have actually had to rely on it. I think you have to have really done it to be that completely over it.

RM: You do get disillusioned. I completely believed in the mission statement of the organization I worked for, which was basically to help queer seniors, but the actuality of working there felt more and more removed from that statement. But it also gave me a sense of context, of being in the trenches of direct service, and so sometimes bringing that politics into the very non nonprofit art world seems very fish-out-of-water for me.

HB: Yeah, and that’s why I don’t consider myself an activist. Frank Wilderson says that as an activist you aren’t allowed to say the world should end, and to do that, you have to be a writer. I really appreciate this perspective, that the importance of art doesn’t reside in its reproductive or world-building power but in its capacity to say, “Fuck everything.”

RM: I do think that artists, or at least the artists I admire, attempt to create their own conditions and universes. They are role models of people exercising their agency. I have a much younger brother who in many ways had a more privileged childhood, but it was also much more conservative Arizona than mine, and he’s also straight, so basically a formula for a toxic man. But I like to think that the examples of my sister and I saved him from his fate. We showed that you don’t have to play the hand you’re dealt. So hopefully being an example of iconoclasm is something I can believe in. Maybe that’s it, but maybe that’s enough?

HB: I think that’s nice. I can’t think about it that directly. I hope in a maybe sentimental way that I’m able to intuit something, either from a zeitgeist or from some sort of history, I hope that there are some real intuitions and that they are conveying themselves in some way and I choose to do it in a way that’s not so direct because I sometimes think that when things are expressed directly they lose the texture of what they are. It’s important to not be clear so I can be more clear. So what is being received is the impossibility of clarity.

RM: Right, if I had a thought that was easily conveyed via language then I would express it that way. It’s a much more accepted form of communication than making a grid of cyborg sea creatures that are anxiously cruising each other.

Ryan McNamara
in conversation with
Hannah Black

All images:
Alien Intimacies, Archive Photo: the artist Courtesy: the artist
Awareness Raising and Befriending Schemes, 2017 Photo: the artist Courtesy: the artist

RYAN McNAMARA (b. 1979, Phoenix, AZ, USA) lives and works in Brooklyn. His work has been featured at: MoMA PS1, New York; Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York; Kunstmuseum Bonn; The Kitchen, New York; Dallas Symphony Orchestra; White Columns, New York; Museum of Modern Art, New York; ICA Boston; Pérez Art Museum Miami; ICI London; Garage Museum of Contemporary Art, Moscow; The Power Plant, Toronto; the Athens Biennale; and The High Line, New York. His work is included in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York.

HANNAH BLACK is an artist and writer from the UK. She lives in New York.